Forget about the finale of this shortened second season (or back half of a first season, it doesn’t matter which) for a minute and travel back a few weeks with me, to when Eric Andre pulled off the greatest feat yet on The Jeselnik Offensive. During a certifiably insane half hour on the show with co-panelist TJ Miller (who wore a viciously creepy and unsettling Anthony Jeselnik mask for the majority of the show) that ultimately yielded a send-off segment entitled “Get It Out Of Your System,” Andre decided to light a firecracker under the desk during “Defend Your Tweet.” Miller vibrated like he was exploding, the stage manager ran on set in a panic, and Jeselnik looked around, stunned at what was going on. As the crew walked off stage, Jeselnik muttered, “We didn’t know, no one did,” acknowledging the improvisational height to which Andre had taken the antics.
It was the first real moment in the show’s run, the only time Jeselnik dropped his character so frequently conflated with his actual personality. And in that moment, you could see who Jeselnik really is: a guy who cares deeply about the structure of late night television. He may embrace the feel of a loose comedy podcast panel, setting his guests up and playfully insulting them, but only within the parameters of predetermined topics and bits. Jeselnik adores late night hosts, but he is too fascinated by uncomfortable topics to ever have a shot at hosting one of their shows. This is as close as he’ll get to a late night talk show, so he takes the opportunity seriously, even when mugging during a pre-recorded segment; the barely controlled anger he directed at Andre for the rest of that episode showed how much he cares about controlling the message of his show.
Having said that, the moment was incredibly funny, totally unexpected, and one of the best bits of television I’ve seen so far this year—and it had absolutely nothing to do with Jeselnik or the format of his show. It just revealed what I like about Jeselnik: There are parts of his smarmy douchebag persona that extend beneath that stage character, but for the most part he’s not that guy. He’s incisively smart and preternaturally gifted at playing up the bravado and cheesy arrogance in order to walk right up to controversial topics undaunted.
Take the game segment during the first part of tonight’s episode. Previously, Jeselnik has asked people to name Google search results for what black, white, Mexican, and Asian people smell like (sort of a racist Google version of Family Feud) taking something that is definitely offensive outside of the show and diffusing it with humor about how nobody is immune from thinking in stereotypes. “How Many Things?” isn’t as clever as that game, instead it asks contestants to guess the number of rapes in popular books, television shows, and films. From the get go, it’s on thin ice, since the appropriateness of jokes about rape has probably been the top hot-button issue for comedians in the past year.
But as the segment keeps going, it becomes clear that Jeselnik is questioning whether iconic or cult classic pieces of entertainment should be revered even though they contain rape. (The Harry Potter starter aside, since that’s a huge fabrication. Excuse the nerd pedant freakout.) When Jeselnik gets to the final contestant, the real point emerges, since the topic is the Bible. The audience contestant guesses way under the actual total (409), and Jeselnik says, “Rape is always bad, no matter how many,” hammering home the point and courting religious controversy while entirely subverting the expected rape joke controversy. It’s a perfect example of why rushing to judgment before a bit has the chance to tease out its meaning doesn’t give credit to the comedians who can engage with difficult topics and come out with funny material.
John Mulaney and Nick Kroll were both panelists in the first 10 episodes of Jeselnik, and together they have the same endearing chemistry as they do on Kroll Show. Jeselnik kicks off the panel perfectly by asking Mulaney about his failed NBC pilot, which gets a rise out of Mulaney and leads to a great joke from Kroll. The back half of the episode is far more tame than the best panels of the season, but it’s still littered with great bits—especially TJ Miller’s interruption discussing bears while dressed as his character from Yogi Bear. All of this season’s panelist bounced off each other well, from Amy Schumer and Jim Norton to Rob Huebel and Doug Benson, and even Joan Rivers and Dave Attel (who got in a great joke about reflecting Jeselnik’s future back across the table).
Ratings for the second season of The Jeselnik Offensive have been down in comparison to the first, but as a late-night show in the summer, it has retained enough viewers to merit renewal (a third season has not officially been announced), considering the talent it draws and the atmosphere Jeselnik creates around sniping with dark humor. Comedy Central originally wanted a show to run after Colbert four nights a week, but Jeselnik would never be able to get the number of guests required for something like that. This is a unique twist on the format that brings together many of the best comedians working today. I give Jeselnik full credit for making me laugh more consistently than any other show so far this year and for continually facing the challenge of mining the darkest material possible for humor.
Episode Grade: B+
Eric Andre Firecracker Moment: A
Season Grade: A-
- I still find all the “panel” lines funny. I only feel a little bad about that.
- “Swung for the fashion fences and parked one in the style section” is already my most frequently quoted line from this year and it’s only been two weeks.
- Nice to see TJ Miller back already, showing that Eric Andre’s antics didn’t hurt Miller’s friendship with Jeselnik, though they were both responsible for how out of hand that episode got by the end.
- Pete Holmes dropping out of the Marc Maron episode did allow for Tom Lennon to step in and save the day, but it robbed us all of the pleasure of watching Maron and Holmes try not to hug then tear each other’s throats out.
- Greeting an audience contestant: “You’re a film student and you make burritos? I’ve always wanted to meet a pothead.”
- If there’s another season of the show next year, I hope Jeselnik gets Pete Holmes—during the down time from Holmes’ new post-Conan show—and Bill Hader (has to be better than those commercials).